ATLANTA – It's a brilliant blue September afternoon, and the mood around the Turner Field batting cage is loose. The Braves have just clinched yet another postseason berth, and all is right in the world as they play out the regular season. Terry Pendleton, the 1991 NL MVP, is here tossing a baseball, a few steps from John Schuerholz, the architect of the Braves' record run of postseason appearances. All-Star outfielder Ron Gant is nearby, and somewhere in the depths of the stadium, Chipper Jones is talking to a local radio station about What It All Means. Pearl Jam's "Evenflow" is blaring over the stadium PA, and if you squint hard – really hard, because Turner Field didn't even exist when "Evenflow" was released – you can imagine that it's the early '90s again
But it's 2012. Terry Pendleton is a coach tossing batting practice. John Schuerholz has ceded the general manager's office, and his once-black hair is now full-on gray. Ron Gant is in a suit, preparing to broadcast the ballgame for a local network. And the line of flags commemorating Atlanta's postseason appearances stretches the length of the high-end luxury club that would have been unthinkable way, way back in 1991.
Only Chipper Jones is still playing ball, the last remaining link to one of the great, if underachieving, dynasties in baseball history. Fittingly enough, his career will end the way it began: a Braves trip to the postseason.
It was a simple play, really; the proverbial "doesn't-show-up-in-the-box-score" move that speaks volumes.
Twenty-two years ago, Jones was one of dozens of ballplayers sweating in the rookie league in Bradenton, Fla. He was surrounded by players headed up, players headed down, players headed nowhere at all. On this day, he was at first base with one out in the inning. The batter hit a sharp grounder to the first baseman, who – reasonably enough – stepped on first to get the runner and fired a throw to second, presumably to nail Chipper with 30 feet to spare.
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But things didn't work out that way. Chipper had deked toward second and walked casually back to first after the ball was gone. The first baseman could have tagged the kid out if he'd just looked, but Jones, just weeks out of high school, had outthought everybody on the field.
"You don't see this kind of instinct in the Rookie League," former Braves coach Bobby Dews later told Schuerholz. "In my entire baseball career, I'd only seen the play twice before. Once by Mickey Mantle and once by Pete Rose."
"This is a guy, who as a youngster, demonstrated great physical ability," Schuerholz said recently, "but more importantly, the uncanny ability to be better in tough situations, to deliver the goods when the game was on the line, when the circumstances were the most difficult and the pitcher was the best he had faced all day. He demonstrated at a very young age that he could succeed."
"Oh, we all knew about Chipper," laughed Gant, who was just entering his prime when Atlanta drafted Jones in 1990. "We'd hear about what he was doing in the minors. First time I met him was at batting practice. He was swinging this little toothpick bat, and I said, 'Kid, you need to be swinging a man's bat.' I gave him one of my 36-[inch], 33-[ounce] bats, and he's been using it ever since."
By the end of 1993, Jones would be in the majors, joining Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Greg Maddux, David Justice and so many others, first as bit player, later as centerpiece, later as spokesman and finally as elder statesman. With Jones on the roster, Atlanta has made 14 postseason appearances, won 12 division championships, three league championships, one World Series and nearly 1,700 games. Jones and Derek Jeter, who followed him into the majors just a couple years later, might be the last players indelibly associated with only one team.
And to this day, Jones carries the lessons he learned from Smoltz, Glavine and the rest. "Come to work every day with an attitude of professionalism, attention to detail, doing your homework – all those things the great players do," Jones said. "They were great role models to me, and that's the torch I've tried to pass on to the younger guys."
A few years into Jones' career, former manager Bobby Cox delivered some prophetic praise of his young third baseman. "I really think I could play him anywhere and he'd be good," he said. "He's also a leader and a winner. He's going to be around for a long time."
Some have dubbed Jones the "Cracker Pope," and that sounds about right: He's as down-home Southern as it gets, with a drawl that grows thicker by the year and a weathered face that wouldn't have looked out of place in Matthew Brady's Civil War photographs. Where his famous former teammates like Smoltz and Glavine would spend the offseason (and off days) touring the nation's greatest golf courses, Jones hunkers down in miserable predawn duck blinds and deer stands, hunting with both bow and rifle.
But that works out just fine for Jones' fans, who appreciate his dirt-on-the-uniform style perhaps even more than they do the surgical precision of the Braves' pitching staff. Indeed, Jones has been around long enough that a few of the kids who grew up watching him play and imitating his style are now suiting up alongside him.
"I grew up in the Southeast, so I've been watching Chipper as long as I can remember," said Tyler Pastornicky, the rookie shortstop born six months before Jones was drafted. "To step onto the same field as him, to wear the same uniform as him, to play with him in his final season …" Pastornicky paused to give one of those how-did-I-get-this-lucky? shrugs. "It's been awesome."
Pope or not, Jones is no saint. Sure, there have been missteps. He's occasionally feuded with teammates, his clubhouse honesty often not reading so well in print. Most infamously, Jones admitted in 1998 to fathering a child out of wedlock, tarnishing the "Golden Boy" halo David Justice placed on his head a few years earlier. But his personal life and off-field actions have been a non-issue for most of his career, and even Atlanta fans who professed disappointment at the moral failings of his youth have embraced Chipper like no other Brave. This year has been one long celebration of Jones and his career, even if, to many, it seems like just yesterday he was a skinny kid with a wad of tobacco half the size of his head stuck in one cheek.
Still, there's ample evidence of his exalted status. Jones naturally holds the most coveted space in the Atlanta locker room, one adjacent to the off-limits-to-media hallway. Smoltz held this one first, then Glavine. (Brian McCann will likely snag it next year.) These days, Jones' schedule is as rigorously organized as the president's, minute-by-minute breakdowns of interviews, broadcast appearances and, oh yeah, a bit of baseball now and then.
Even now, after a full season of media hype and city-by-city gifts, Jones still takes the time to answer the questions he's heard thousands of times already, questions about what he'll do the first day he doesn't have a game ("eat a bowl of cereal and take my kids to school"), best moment in a Braves uniform ("last team standing, 1995") and what he'll miss most ("these guys," waving his hand around the locker room). He'll consent to wacky radio drop-ins ("This is Chipper Jones, and you're listening to 'The Benchwarmers!' ") and he'll answer questions until the questioners leave.
"You gotta put on the good face every day you come in here, because it's all hands on deck right now," Jones says. "I know a lot of people are looking to me for leadership. How would it look if I didn't go out every night and bust my can every night down the stretch?"
Jones has long been one of the best interviews in baseball, a thoughtful and insightful student of the game. To listen to him break down a pitcher's tendencies is to hear a master strategist in his element. For that reason, you've got to figure the Braves will keep him on the payroll in at least an advisory capacity; 15 minutes learning hitting at the feet of Chipper Jones would be worth a month in the minors for some young draftees.
"I've stood 60 feet, six inches from some of the best that ever played the game, and had success," Jones said. "I soaked up advice from the Fred McGriffs, the Dave Justices, the Terry Pendletons. And these guys [current teammates], when they see an opportunity to ask me something, I hope I can give them some good advice."
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Like Sinatra, Jones has a few regrets. Looking back, he said, he should have been more aggressive with the bat earlier in his career, swinging instead of walking. ("I'd be a lot closer to 3,000 hits," as if that matters for his Cooperstown credentials.) Most notably, he regrets the one at-bat he didn't get: ninth inning, the 1996 World Series, Game 6. Down only one run, with a man on second, Mark Lemke popped out in foul territory with Jones in the on-deck circle. Atlanta still hasn't won a World Series game since then.
Could that change this year? Perhaps. Jones might finish his career in the Fall Classic, or he might have less than 10 games remaining. Either way, he's capping off a singular baseball career with one last playoff push into October, part of a Braves team that appears to have the tools in place for another years-long string of postseason appearances. Seems only right that the last link to the Braves of the 1990s might just kick off another run for the Braves of the 2010s. And, no, Jones won't be coming back.
"After our last game of the season, if you feel a rather strong wind around Atlanta, that's me exhaling," he said. "It's going to be a relief when it's over. While I'm focused and still ready to play at 7:05 every night, my body's ready to be done."
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